Mario Batali, dressed in jeans and orange clogs, eases into a seat at Del Posto, his smart Italian restaurant on the edge of New York’s Meatpacking district.
It’s just hours after he has compared bankers to Hitler and Stalin during a panel discussion. The next morning, his remarks will create a storm, with calls for a boycott of his venues, of which there are about 20, from Las Vegas to Singapore.
“I have been running around like a maniac,” Batali says before dinner on Nov. 8, apologizing for arriving minutes late. He’s also sorry for the fact that we are dining at 6 p.m. (He has to return home to help his son with a school chemistry project.)
“I was on a panel today and we were arguing who should be the Time Magazine Man of the Year,” he says. “It could be anyone. They didn’t have to be alive or dead. Stalin was Man of the Year twice. Hitler was Man of the Year once. So it could be evil. It was just one who shaped the news the most.
“The obvious one was Steve Jobs,” says Batali. “My pitch was that it was bankers and their evil ways. They’ve changed our lives more than anybody else.” How about Muammar Qaddafi? I ask.
“But Qaddafi went in a mad, sad way,” Batali, 51, says. “He (messed) them up, but he didn’t really (mess) us up. So, in terms of the world news, there was the guy that lit himself on fire in Tunisia and that was interesting but not really the answer.”
The next day, he apologizes after he’s quoted by Forbes.Com as telling the panel: “The ways the bankers have kind of toppled the way money is distributed and taken most of it into their hands, is as good as Stalin or Hitler and the evil guys ... They’re not heroes, but they are people who had a really huge effect on the way the world is operating.”
(Batali’s spokeswoman Pamela Lewy said in an e-mail on Nov. 18 that he had no further comment beyond the apology.)
Batali is good company. A two-hour meal of spaghetti with crab and white truffles, grilled pork and lobster passes swiftly. He speaks in hyperbole: How’s the veal chop? “It’s a killer.” The truffles? “I’m a truffle whore from way back.” What does he think of April Bloomfield, the U.K. chef he helped choose for the Spotted Pig? “I love her,” he says.
We’re seated in a corner of Del Posto, a glamorous restaurant of dark wood, with tasting menus at $115 and $145.
“This is Jay-Z’s table,” Batali says of the rapper, one of the investors in the Spotted Pig. Where does his wife Beyonce sit? Batali points to the chair on which I am seated.
His business partner, Joe Bastianich, comes over for a chat, and Batali introduces his executive chef Mark Ladner. Two sets of diners come over to say hello and Batali is as relaxed and courteous with them as he is with the staffers.
I ask if there would be more fans elsewhere, such as Eataly, his new food-and-wine mart in the Flatiron District.
“Yeah, we wouldn’t be able to talk,” he says. “It would be fun, but if I walked in Eataly right now, there would be a line, like I was in an Italian wedding with one next to me to take a picture. I don’t mind it, it’s fine, but not if you want to talk to someone you don’t know.”
Batali talks about his schedule: He’s about to present a charity dinner in New Orleans and to open a restaurant in Hong Kong. He’s active in philanthropy. He has some great restaurants. He has many fans, though considerably fewer in the banking industry after the jibe, which prompted complaints from hundreds of Bloomberg customers posted on the terminal.
While I won’t defend the comment, I shall defend the man, whose charm is partly based on the fact that he’s immoderate and outspoken. Still, it’s rude to insult your customers and unwise to compare anyone other than a monster to Hitler and Stalin. Batali might better have said that elements in the banking industry were responsible for risky practices that proved unconducive to long-term financial stability.
That wouldn’t have stirred up so much lively debate.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.)